Lisbon's nightlife runs on a late schedule. Few arrive at a bar before midnight, at a club before 4, or go home until long after the sun has risen.
All that is about to change, however, as the city government approves new licensing laws to ease tension between party goers and embattled residents in the Portuguese capital.
Lisbon’s nightlife has exploded in the last five years, partly credited with fuelling a boom in tourism – an industry which last year was worth $11.6bn and accounted for 15 per cent of Portugal’s GDP.
“Today Lisbon is sold as the best nightlife scene in Europe. That phrase is essentially the slogan of the city tourist board,” said Jordi Nofre, head researcher at the LX Nights project, set up by the New Lisbon University to track recent changes in the city’s nightlife. “The night is one of the main products they have to sell.” The thriving night-time economy is a boon for a city slowly recovering from six years of painful recession and austerity measures, in a country still suffering 27 per cent youth unemployment.
Part of the lure for tourists is freedom. “When you look at guide books or travel literature, Lisbon is shown as a night where you can do whatever you want. In articles or forums online that’s the message that’s communicated, too,” explained Nofre. Lisbon has cheaper drinks than in most Western European cities, late hours – clubs rarely shut before 6am – and an open-air drinking culture suited to its Mediterranean climate.
The city’s nightlife movement sprung up in the 1980s in Barrio Alto. In the last decade it has rapidly expanded to other areas of the city, particularly Barrio Alto’s neighbour Cais do Sodre. The decaying area near the Lisbon docks – once home to brothels and sailors on leave – has been given a new lease of life with nightlife-fuelled gentrification, and the creation of the famous “Pink Street”. The Rua Caravalho was closed to traffic in 2012, and its floor painted pink, with bars and clubs being encouraged to open there – a symbolic recognition by Lisbon’s city hall of the central role of nightlife.
Yet not everyone is pleased by the increased status of the night. “We now have about 100,000 people drinking on the street of the entire neighbourhood every Thursday to Saturday. The city is being transformed into a huge nightlife amusement park,” said Isabel Sá da Bandeira, who runs Lisbon residents’ campaign People Live Here.
Many residents, particularly families, she said, have been forced to leave central Lisbon. “Those that cannot leave or do not want to leave are unable to sleep because of the noise caused by drunkards,” she added. “In the morning they have to face floods of litter and [a] urine smell. It's really unbelievable that such scenarios are possible in the 21st century in Europe.” Some residents have fought back, with numerous reports of them throwing buckets of water over partygoers’ heads.
The gentrification of former working-class neighbourhood Barrio Alto, and more rapidly and recently Cais do Sodre, has changed the demographics of these areas and increased pressure on city government to deal with complaints. Sá da Bandeira admits that, in the past, “no one minded [about disruption caused by nightlife] as the large majority of residents were poor and old people.”
In an effort to resolve the conflict, Lisbon’s city hall has just passed, after lengthy debate, a set of reforms to its licensing laws. Across the city, shops must close at 10pm, drinking in the street after 1am will be banned, bars will have to close by 2am, and clubs and bars with dance-floors by 3am. Venues which renovate to meet strict soundproofing requirements can stay open till 4am.
Meanwhile, Lisbon’s waterfront – a long strip of land which hugs the Targus river estuary – has been designated a 24 hour zone. Clubs and bars can operate there as long as they like, and the area is receiving a clean-up to attract businesses and customers.
Rua Augusta in the Pombaline Baixa (lower town). Image: OsvaldoGago/Wikimedia Commons.
The works will be paid for entirely by Lisbon’s new tourist tax. A one euro charge collected from tourists at the airport, the port and in their accommodation, it has already raised half the necessary funds – €6.2m – despite only being introduced last year and only partially enforced.
Shifting all nightlife to the waterfront could be the solution, according to Nofre. “It’s n deserted area,” he said. “Nobody lives there. You can have music outside, live music even.” It’s also an easy area to control. “You could have police, ambulances, people giving information about the responsible consumption of drugs and alcohol. We’d be de-regulating the area in order to regulate it more.”
However, the waterfront plan is dimly viewed by many. “The idea of having people drinking 24 hours a day and having to cross paths with people wanting to enjoy a quiet and healthy environment is just crazy,” said Bandeira.
From a business standpoint, artificially pushing nightlife into one area could fundamentally alter the makeup of Lisbon’s nightlife industry. “It’s a very small area,” said Gonalço Riscado, a club owner and head of the C business association. The size and waterfront location, combined with the scrapping of rent controls in Lisbon four years ago, means rents could soar. “It will only be possible for people with a lot of money, with these huge, popular, mainstream programmes,” he said. “Of course you also look for that when you have massive tourism in a city. But that’s not what gives you the soul of a city’s nightlife."
The move to stamp out drinking in the street has also met with criticism from bar owners who say that the open air drinking phenomenon is a longstanding part of Lisbon’s night-time culture. People have used public space socially in Lisbon since the end of the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974, a reaction of “liberation” according to Nofre. It is also essential to the night-time economy.
“Smaller bars depend on the public space because they have cheaper drinks and don’t charge entry,” said Cristóvão Caxaria, a bar owner in Cais do Sodre, when the measures were first proposed last year. “We are going to lose 50 per cent of our revenue with this restrictive measure”.
Barrio Alto in particular is populated by many very small bars – with space for only 10 or 15 people inside – which sell drinks “to go”, feeding the throngs which line the street. This practice constitutes a major part of the current conflict between residents and nightlife. Yet, according to Riscado it is the direct result of previous attempts to regulate nightlife.
When Lisbon’s nightlife scene was first exploding ten years ago, he said, “they introduced a regulation which said that in Barrio Alto everything had to close at 2am. Restaurants, bars, clubs, everything. They thought this would be the solution to problems with residents.”
It was not. “In fact it caused a big problem. The bars and clubs which had existed at that time used to host cultural programmes inside”, offering music or other events to entertain people, as well as drinks. “But because they couldn’t be open till later they could not invest any more on their programmes.”
These places ended up closing down and being replaced by “small places selling just drinks to the street,” with lower running costs.
This is one example of the Lisbon town hall’s “lack of strategic planning,” said Riscado. Others include a period in which many clubs and bars were given the same opening time as restaurants – 6am. “So then club owners said ‘I close at 4, I wait 2 hours and then I open again at 6,” explained Riscado. This lead to stragglers filling the streets and clashes with people going to work. “It became very difficult to be here in the morning.”
Riscado is cautiously optimistic that the different rules for clubs, bars and restaurants show the city government has finally understood the economic importance of nightlife and the need for sensitive strategic planning around it. The town council’s plans to create a night mayor – following the initiative of Amsterdam, Berlin, and several other European cities where an elected figure exists to nurture and advocate for the night-time economy alongside more day-focused local governments – also look promising.
Riscado agrees that something must be done to end the abuse of public space by bar owners who “use the whole street as their area of service.” He said, “Public space belongs to everyone. We need to work in a way that means both elements of the neighbourhood – living, nightlife; commerce and living – can work together.”
Yet with such a history of ill-advised regulations, Riscado is wary of authorities “viewing all nightlife in the same way”. Restrictions to hours in most of the city could impact not only bars which sell drinks ‘to go’, but also threaten venues which put on cultural events, like Riscado’s bar Povo and celebrated club Musicbox. “None of the work I do with helping new artists or bringing international groups to Portugal is profitable. It’s not for me and it’s not for many of the small clubs in Europe. What is profitable is that I can be open till 6am, selling drinks.”
Careful thought needs to be given to businesses with “cultural importance”. “If we dis-invest in this importance,” he said, “then we will end up just being a city for bachelor parties, or students when they finish their high school.”